Germany in the dock over packaging rules

European Commission goes to court claiming discrimination against foreign mineral water producers

Six years after issuing a first warning, the European Commission is to launch court action against Germany claiming that its rules protecting refillable drinks containers breach the EU's packaging directive.

The decision comes just as the German government is preparing to replace the contested measure with a new law. European packaging industry interests immediately stressed today that this too would discriminate against foreign producers.

The Commission's action relates to a clause in the 1998 German packaging ordinance requiring at least 72% of beverages to be packaged in refillable containers, failing which deposits are to be imposed on offending types of one-way containers. After long internal discussions, the EU is taking aim not at the general principle of the rule but its impact on the mineral water sector, since under EU law mineral waters must be bottled at source.

"We consider that the German rules do not take proper account of the environmental costs of sending mineral water containers over long distances for re-use," commented EU environment commissioner Margot Wallström. "They are a barrier to trade without environmental justification and I urge the German authorities to change them in an environmentally appropriate way."

The German government is, in fact, now proposing to do away with the 72% refillables quota in favour of a new distinction between ecologically "advantageous" and ecologically "disadvantageous" packaging types (ENDS Daily 31 January). The Commission said it was aware of this, but was taking action because no changes had been adopted.

Representing companies from France, Belgium, Italy, Luxembourg and Switzerland, mineral water importers' association VMI welcomed the Commission's announcement while warning that Germany's draft new rules would continue to present illegal barriers to trade.

"In the general interest, the German government should freeze work on revising the [packaging] ordinance and pledge not to bring into force deposits under the existing rules, while awaiting the European Court's judgement," the group urged.

Follow Up:
European Commission, tel: +32 2 299 1111, and press release; VMI, tel: +32 2 761 2371. See also draft new German packaging rules, notified to the European Commission on 14 March).

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